Crafting Democratic Futures: Rutgers University—Newark

Written by Mark Krasovic, associate professor of history and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. 

Project Description

The Crafting Democratic Futures project at Rutgers University-Newark is led by faculty directors Mark Krasovic (history and American Studies) and Timothy Eatman (Honors Living-Learning Community and urban education), in partnership with community fellows Richard Cammarieri (Newark Community Development Network) and Ryan Haygood (New Jersey Institute for Social Justice). Together, they coordinate partners and resources both on campus and in the larger Newark community to research our local history of racial harms and devise methods of repair. 

Richard, Ryan, and colleagues at their respective organizations lead the organization of community dialogues on reparations in Newark. The Newark Community Development Network comprises community development corporations and other community-based organizations spanning Newark’s five wards. Collectively, the members of this network have been organizing and serving the community since the aftermath of the 1967 rebellion. The NJ Institute for Social Justice is a Newark-based civil rights organization that engages in grassroots organizing and advocacy and seeks to build reparative systems that create wealth, justice, and power – from the ground up – for Black, Latina/Latino and other people of color in New Jersey. 

The Rutgers faculty directors are building a collaborative relationship between these off-campus partners and the university, which is rich in publicly engaged scholars and artists, both at the faculty and student levels. These include scholars in the humanities and social sciences specializing in local, urban, and African American history; sociology and education; the law and economics; and visual and graphic artists. We have composed a research team consisting of interested faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students. Our research work is informed by engagements with the community fellows and with Newark’s energetic local-history community, which includes research institutions like the Newark Public Library and the New Jersey Historical Society, as well as citizen groups like the Newark History Society.

The term reparations is defined in various ways. How do you define community-based reparations? Over the next three years, what strategies are you implementing to accomplish this?

The Newark project approaches community-based reparations as a process, as well as an endpoint. Community dialogues will help guide our historical research toward areas most relevant to Newarkers and will define the reparative practices that emerge from a reckoning with those histories of harm.

Different teams comprise different types of colleagues and partners (e.g., historians, artists, community leaders). Can you describe the composition of the Rutgers Team? Moreover, who are the community partners engaged in this work? 

We have pulled together a diverse team of community residents, faculty, and students (with some individuals with various combinations thereof). From RUN, we have enlisted faculty historians, sociologists, artists, librarians, and digital humanists to work on the project. A team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers – including students from our American Studies, journalism, graphic design, Global Affairs, and Honors Living-Learning Community programs – has begun to produce insightful original research and begun shaping it into digital maps and graphics to help generate and drive the larger communal dialogue about reparations in Newark. Those dialogues, as organized by our community fellows, have established working relationships with several community organizations and leaders, chief among which has been Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark Branch NAACP and member of our core planning team. Newark also boasts an especially lively local-history community, and we are establishing a community research fellows component that will engage institutions and individuals whose research and archival holdings are invaluable to the project.

What factors are important to know about your local history to better understand your project? 

Former Newark Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson once said, “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.” There’s some hyperbole in that, for sure. But there’s a palpable sense in Newark that both the triumphs and the failures of the ongoing American struggle for democracy have always played out here with particular sharpness. Newark is an old city, settled by Connecticut Puritans in 1666 on land used by the Native Lenape people for thousands of years. Within a generation of that initial dispossession, slavery took root, even as the white settlers battled the British crown over property and taxation. Slavery grew in Newark over the decades in which those struggles blossomed into revolution and it survived the arrival of American independence. The accumulating wealth of white Newarkers drove the city’s industrialization, while the fallout of that process – workers’ broken bodies; contamination of the air, land, and water; and the sharpening of American inequality under industrial capitalism – fell especially hard on its Black, brown, and immigrant residents. Twentieth-century efforts to address those depredations via government action (housing and welfare programs, for example) often exacerbated the inequality and helped produce one of the deadliest racial uprisings and police riots of the 1960s. The legacies of these histories are clear in New Jersey’s stunning racial disparities in health, incarceration, and income.

Yet through it all, activist residents fought to build community, maintain capital, and demand democratic decision-making. They have tackled a panoply of issues relevant to the CDF project including school reform, criminal justice and police reform, urban planning, economic and workforce development, environmental justice, and food and housing insecurity. To understand our local reparations project, therefore, one needs to know the city’s daunting history of harms, for sure. But one also needs to understand and draw inspiration from its history of healing and repair.

Is there anything else you would like to our partners across the country to know about Rutgers’ Democratic Futures project?

In January 2020, a bill establishing the “New Jersey Reparations Task Force” was introduced in the state legislature. It recognizes not only our state’s troubled history – New jersey was, for example, the last Northern state to abolish slavery and the last enslaved people were not emancipated until 1865 – but also the legacies thereof. According to research from the NJ Institute for Social Justice (among the key advocates of the state reparations bill), those legacies include a racial wealth gap ($352,000 median net wealth of white families vs. $6,100 for Black families); an incarceration rate for Black children twenty-one times higher than for white children; and a Black COVID-related death rate that dwarfs those of all other racial groups. 

As we work locally in New Jersey’s largest city, we do so with an eye toward statewide disparities and state-level reparations work, just as we acknowledge and join the reparative work already being performed in Newark. Mayor Ras Baraka and Ryan Haygood have described Newark as a case study of the “Two Americas”: impressive investment in a resurgent downtown on the one hand, and neighborhoods in great need of the same on the other. Under the umbrella of “equitable growth,” the mayor, community-based organizations, and local anchor institutions have launched multiple efforts to redress this disparity. Among these efforts are the Newark 40 Acres and a Mule Fund, the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, the Mayor’s Equitable Growth Advisory Commission, and the Hire.Buy.Live initiative.